Marchand Brings "Passion for Data" to Campaign for Governor

Jun 22, 2016

Among the Democrats vying for the title of New Hampshire governor this year is former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand. He's hoping his mix of political and fiscal experience will win over voters in the Democratic primary this September.

Marchand is an animated guy. He talks with his hands a lot, and wears an earnest expression that lets you know he really means it when he says things like this:

“I am passionate about data," he says. "If you don’t count things then you can’t measure them. And if you don’t measure them, you can’t improve them.”

Some of Marchand’s energy, no doubt, comes from his age. At 42, Marchand would be among the state’s youngest governors if elected. But despite his relative youth, Marchand has already managed to make a name for himself in New Hampshire politics -- particularly in the city Portsmouth.

I met Marchand in Portsmouth on a recent foggy afternoon. As we strolled through Prescott Park near downtown, Marchand reflected on how he first came to the city.

“I came here Thanksgiving weekend of 2000 with my now wife and didn’t know anybody," he says. "And that was the case for the first few years.”

At the time, Marchand worked for a company called Maximus, which advises government agencies on how to run more effectively. Marchand, who already had his Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University, would travel to city and county governments around the country and open up their books.

Credit Sara Plourde/NHPR

“And we’d go in, and we’d ask lots of tough questions, and we’d collect all kinds of data," he recalls. "And then we’d make a lot of recommendations about what needed to be done to get to the outcome that mattered most to them. That is an ethos I’ve taken in my own public life, and to some extent it is how I try to live all the time.”

Later, Marchand worked on a few political campaigns, including as deputy campaign manager for Mark Fernald, who won the Democratic nomination for governor but lost in the general election to Craig Benson in 2002.

But for all his involvement in public policy and politics, Marchand says it wasn’t until a phone call with some old grad-school buddies that he seriously considered running for office himself.

"And it was one of those verbal slaps in the face, like let's go already!"

“Finally, they basically said: alright, you just helped run political races, you’ve done all this auditing work, so you know what you would do and you have an idea of how you would get elected so that you could implement these ideas, why the heck aren’t you doing it? And it was one of those verbal slaps in the face, like let’s go already!”

Marchand decided he would run for a spot on Portsmouth’s city council, and went door-to-door to introduce himself to voters. Eventually, he says, he knocked on more than 2,000 doors in Portsmouth.

At 29 Marchand was elected to the city council. Two years later, he ran again, this time receiving enough votes to become mayor of Portsmouth.

Once in office, Marchand’s penchant for data-driven budgeting took center stage. In his first year as mayor, he took a hard look at expenses in various city agencies, including the police department. He wrote a 2,500 word analysis of how the department handled overtime pay, arguing that the rate of police activity was too low to justify a budget increase.

Marchand’s cost-benefit analyses weren’t always well received. Department heads sometimes chafed under the added work of reporting new data, only to get their budgets reduced as a result. The chairman of the Portsmouth school board at the time, Kent LaPage, said Marchand and the other councilors didn’t give enough weight to the school board’s interpretation of their own data.

But others like local business owner Jay McSharry liked Marchand’s style.

“He’s sort of a wonk," McSharry says. "In a good way – like he wants to use the numbers and create some efficiencies but really back it up.”

Marchand left office in 2007, but he stayed involved in politics, both local and national. In Portsmouth’s most recent city council race, Marchand played an active role, recruiting and lobbying for several candidates – most of whom got elected.

In national politics, Marchand served as state director for the political organization No Labels, which tries to elect candidates willing to work across partisan lines.

Credit Brady Carlson / NHPR

When it came to joining the race for governor, Marchand says just like his decision to run for city council, it was a phone call from a friend that gave him the nudge he needed. Only this time, it was Stefany Shaheen, daughter of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who had been contemplating her own run for governor.

“When Stefany called a few months ago and said ‘I don’t think I’m running’ and why aren’t you looking at this? You’ve done policy forever, you know you’re politics, you’d be successful. At least look at.”

Marchand announced his candidacy in March. Since then he’s been running on a theme of "technocratic dynamism" that he hopes will set him apart from his Democratic opponents.

“I saw a lack of energy in the field," he says. "People are not, frankly, super-excited about this gubernatorial field. It’s one of the reasons why it’s been a pretty low-key race up to now.”

Marchard has until Sept. 13 to convince Democratic voters beyond the Seacoast that he’s someone to be excited about.